Posts Tagged ‘C.S. Lewis’

When we pray for discernment, what do we expect to happen?

September 8, 2016

In Roger Olson’s most recent blog post, “Evangelical Christian Thoughts about ‘Mindfulness,’” Dr. Olson asserts that genuine Christian prayer must include talking to God. From his perspective, if we’re not talking, we may be meditating, but we’re not praying.

Is he right?

If so, doesn’t this conflict with how we often talk about prayer? In my job as pastor, for example, I often ask laypeople to consider serving in lay leadership positions and on committees. Usually, they respond by saying something like, “Let me pray about it and get back to you.” I know I’ve responded this way when others ask me to make important decisions.

But what are we really saying when we say we’ll “pray” about a decision?

I suspect few of us imagine that God will tell us in an audible voice whether we should do something or not. So are we waiting to feel an intuition, a hunch, a warm feeling in the pit of our stomachs? And if so, am I right to be suspicious of this kind of “prayer”?

C.S. Lewis certainly would have been. In The Screwtape Letters, the senior tempter Screwtape urges his young apprentice to get his human patient to focus on his feelings when he prays. (Please note that when Lewis uses “Enemy”—writing from the perspective of Screwtape, a demon and senior tempter—he’s referring to our heavenly Father.)

Whenever they are attending to Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.[†]

These words convict me. I often judge the success of my prayers based on how I feel while praying, or shortly thereafter. So when I pray for discernment, how much of what I “discern” will depend less on the Holy Spirit and more on whether I’m “well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment”?

Once, while talking to a candidate for ministry, I told him he should seriously consider going to a particular seminary. He said, “I’ve prayed about it, and I just don’t feel that the Lord is leading me to go there.” Frankly, I thought he was mistaken. And I wanted to say to him, “Yes, but how do you know that my telling you this isn’t a part of the Lord’s guidance? Maybe the Lord is using me to get you to consider going to this seminary.”

On what basis did this person discern that he shouldn’t go to this seminary if not his own feelings? Is that O.K.?

What are your thoughts?

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 195.

How John Piper cures insomnia

August 10, 2016

No, it’s not what you think!

I’m generally a good sleeper except on Saturday nights, when I often feel restless thinking about my sermon the next day.

As has been my custom for twelve years, I wake up at 4:00 on Sunday mornings. After stopping to pick up doughnuts (for the congregation), I arrive at the church around 5:30. I rehearse and revise my sermon manuscript and do whatever else needs to be done to get ready for worship.

The trouble is, unless I’m in bed early on Saturday nights—which rarely happens any night of the week—I’m often struck with that sinking feeling: “Now you’ve only got four hours of sleep available… Now you’ve only got three-and-a-half,” etc. You probably know that feeling.

It happened again last Saturday night. I was on the verge of panic.

But then I told myself—in all seriousness—”Brent, if the Lord wants you to sleep these next few hours, you’ll sleep. If not, you’ll just lie here and rest. Maybe he has something to tell you while you lie here. But either way, he’ll make sure you’ll have what you need to preach his Word tomorrow.” And then I prayed words to that effect and felt relieved. Almost immediately I drifted off.

My point is not to prescribe a new “faith-based” treatment for insomnia; it’s to say that this was an all-too-rare moment of practicing what I preach. I believe in God’s sovereignty and providential care—even over little things, like sleep. God is in control. God is looking out for me. The weight of the world is not on my shoulders.

C.S. Lewis, more than anyone, is responsible for helping me see the light about this doctrine. But I thought of John Piper because, you know, he’s famous for preaching that message.

(By the way, my fellow Methodists, you don’t have to be among the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” to appreciate that Piper is an excellent preacher.)

Keller: “God has to wrestle us into a transformed life rather than comfort us into one”

June 16, 2016

kellerAs I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon on Genesis 32:22-32, I listened to Timothy Keller’s sermon on the same text, “The Fight of Your Life,” from November 18, 2001. In it, he made a point that I found insightful.

Whereas we often think of Jacob as having a “conversion experience” by the banks of the Jabbok river—which is how I preached it—Keller points out that Jacob had already begun repenting and moving in God’s direction before then. First, Jacob was leading his family, his servants, and his livestock back to the Promised Land in response to God’s call in Genesis 31: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

God’s command to Jacob, and his obedience, is no small thing: Jacob still believes his brother intends to kill him—and will do so, apart from either divine intervention, Jacob’s own well-placed bribes, or both. So Jacob is literally risking his life to obey God.

Lest we’re tempted to feel morally superior to Jacob, how many of us have ever shown that much faith?

Moreover, near the beginning of chapter 32, Jacob seeks God in prayer for the first time (at least the first time in scripture). Jacob’s conversion may not be complete, but it’s getting there!

Keller says:

In all the teaching you’ve ever gotten, in all your expectations about how God operates, how do you expect God to respond to a man who has obeyed him at the risk of his life—has put his life on the line to obey his Word and follow his will—and is seeking him in prayer, and who’s filled with fear and at the end of his rope? How does God respond to a man who’s utterly obedient, seeking him in prayer, scared and at the end of his rope? What does God do to a man like that?

He clobbers him. He knocks him down, literally! He assaults him. He puts a hammer lock on him. And maims him for the rest of his life!

This is not, Keller says, a God of liberal religion who merely loves and accepts us for who we are.

But is this the God that your typical conservative church talks about? Oh, no. You know why? Because what you hear there is, “If you obey—and you obey to your own hurt—and you do everything right according to God’s will, and you pray and have your quiet time and go to church and study your Bible and do everything right, God will… clobber you? Knock you down? Cripple you for the rest of your life?

This is not a God of anybody’s religion. This is not a God of anybody’s imagination. Why is this text here? It must have happened. Who would have thought it up? What kind of idiot would think of a God like this? Who could have imagined a God like this? This must have happened. This must be a real God because nobody else could have invented him.

Keller compares this text to John 11, the raising of Lazarus. Just as God has a purpose for Jacob’s suffering, so God had a purpose for Lazarus’s suffering and death. At the same time, however, we see God in Christ melting into tears: he’s overcome with grief. God uses suffering for his purposes, but God isn’t remote from our suffering; he weeps with those who weep. Keller cautions us to keep these two ideas in mind: God uses suffering even as he suffers alongside us.

Having said that, this text, in a way that’s more vivid than any other place I know in the Bible, tells us that, in general, God has to wrestle us into a transformed life rather than comfort us into a transformed life.

Is that true in your experience? It is in mine!

I would also add this: As C.S. Lewis points out in The Problem of Pain, the fact that God treats us this way is nothing less than a consequence of his love:

When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of the terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artists’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.[†]

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1940; 1966), 39-40.

Sermon 03-20-16: “Your King Is Coming”

March 23, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

In his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, Jesus announces to the world that he is king. Do we live our lives as if Jesus is king? Or do we live as if God’s kingdom were a democracy, and we get to vote on the question? If the latter, now is the time to repent, while we are still in this “season of mercy.” As I warn in this sermon, while he comes as a merciful king the first time, he comes as a king who judges and punishes the second time.

[To listen on the go, right-click to download an MP3.]

There was a story in the news last week that gave me a chill: A University of Virginia student named Otto Warmbier, who was visiting North Korea as part of some organization, was boarding an airplane back to the U.S. when he was arrested. Allegedly, he stole some kind of propaganda sign from the hotel he was staying in. He confessed to doing it, but for all we know, he did so under duress, at gunpoint. I don’t know if stealing this sign was the moral equivalent of stealing hotel bathroom towels, but it didn’t seem much more significant than that. Yet the North Koreans immediately tried him and sentenced him to 15 years hard labor. Fifteen years!

Otto Warmbier

The story gives me the heebie-jeebies because I can’t help but think, “What if that were me?” Not that I would ever go to North Korea—and there’s a good reason the State Department warns Americans not to go there—and if I went, I hope I wouldn’t steal anything while I was there, but still… Even if Warmbier did it, 15 years in a North Korean concentration camp is a terrible price to pay for such a seemingly small and foolish decision! It’s so unfair!

Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 03-06-16: “Believing the Word”

March 11, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic
As hard as it is to believe, when we find ourselves in a place of utter helplessness—when we’ve reach the end of our ropes and realize that there’s nothing else we can do to help ourselves—this is often, surprisingly, an amazing place to be! Because this is the place where God’s grace meets us! This sermon explores this idea and more. Enjoy!

Sermon Text: John 4:43-54

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Growing up, my friend Andy had a street sign hanging on his bedroom wall. It identified a street near where we lived; I don’t know how he got it or where he got it. But the sign hung on his wall, right next to the Christie Brinkley swimsuit poster. It was awesome—and the street sign was pretty cool too!

But I’m sure the people from the county who put the sign up originally didn’t want my friend to have it—in part because the county paid for it, and they had to replace it with a new one. And besides, the purpose of a sign isn’t to be displayed on the wall as a piece of art, as part of the decor of a teenage boy’s bedroom; the purpose of a sign is to point to something, to identify something, to give information about something. If you hang the sign on your wall because you like the way it looks, you’ve missed the point of the sign.

And that’s what these Galileans in today’s scripture have done. They’ve missed the point of Jesus’ “signs,” which is John’s name for the miracles that Jesus performs. So of course, as verse 45 says, the Galileans “welcome” Jesus; they roll out the red carpet for him; throw a parade for him when he returns home to Galilee. Why wouldn’t they welcome him like this? The local boy has made them proud; he’s done well. After all, did you see what he did a couple of weeks ago at the Passover festival in Jerusalem? Unbelievable… All those miracles he performed! And the way he drove away those merchants and money changers in the Temple! But especially the miracles! Everyone’s talking about the miracles! And he’s one of us! He’s a hometown boy!

Read the rest of this entry »

Does a good God allow “gratuitous” evil?

March 8, 2016

In the latest episode of Unbelievable?, Josh Parikh and Cory Markum square off over this question: Does the existence of evil presuppose the existence of God? In my view, the answer is obvious: The moment you call something “evil,” you are appealing to objective moral facts, which themselves depend on the existence of a Judge who defines what is good and bad. As Tim Keller argues in his masterful book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, in making an argument against God on the basis of the existence of evil, you end up “relying on God to make an argument against God.”[1]

If I were Parikh, the Christian debater, I would have exposed the sentimentality that atheist Markum depended on to suggest that evil is incompatible with God’s existence. He began by citing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which hundreds of thousands—disproportionately children—died in one fell swoop. Surely a good God wouldn’t permit this!

Parikh should have intensified the problem: In other words, if Markum is right, he doesn’t go far enough. By what logic does a good God allow not only the deaths of hundreds of thousands in a tsunami, but even the death of one person, for example, whose trailer park was struck by a tornado? Unless Markum can justify even one death, he’s neither helping nor harming his case by appealing to scale. Logically, multiplying the problem of one death from “gratuitous evil” adds nothing to the problem.

Besides, as C.S. Lewis points out in his masterpiece The Problem of Pain, no one suffers more than one death.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[2]

Years ago, I read an online debate between N.T. Wright and agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. When Ehrman made this inevitable appeal to what Lewis calls the “sum of suffering,” Wright pointed out his logical inconsistency. Ehrman never grasped the point, unfortunately. Because it is a good point…

Or it’s a bad point inasmuch as it works against us believers in the Christian God. Again, either we can justify one person’s death from so-called “gratuitous evil” or we can justify no one’s death from it. It’s that simple.

Later in the episode, Markum appeals to the massive scale of animal suffering as another spin on the argument. What about a baby bat with a broken wing who dies a seemingly gruesome death in bat guano by being eaten alive by creatures living in the guano?

How is this not a facile example of anthropomorphizing animal pain? By all means, nature is red in tooth and claw, but Markum’s argument only holds water if we ascribe human-like self-consciousness to the bat—as if the animal were thinking (paraphrasing the Carpenters song), “I’ve only just begun to live/ So much of life ahead…” While many animals experience pain, God has designed them such that they are unaware that they are themselves experiencing it. They’re not capable of thinking, “Why is this happening to me?” They lack any awareness of regret, or remorse, or a sense of their own mortality—things that often makes human suffering so painful.

Again, Lewis tackles this question in his book. Other Christian apologists have done so more recently.

Besides, has Markum not heard the Disney song (by way of Tim Rice and Elton John) “The Circle of Life”? It’s good and necessary for the ecosystem that organisms in the guano feed on the baby bat. Right?

After all, when the cheetah attacks the antelope in the National Geographic special, we always feel awful for the antelope. But if we’re going to anthropomorphize, let’s anthropomorphize all the way: Let’s follow that cheetah as she feeds the antelope carcass to her cubs. Isn’t that sweet? (I’m a cat lover. I think it’s sweet when a house cat leaves a dead squirrel on the doorstep.)

Nevertheless, I agree with Parikh that the cross of Jesus Christ represents the worst evil the world has ever known. If God can redeem even that evil, then he can surely do the same with all lesser forms of evil. Suffering may be “gratuitous” in the sense that it isn’t necessary to fulfill God’s purposes, but it’s never meaningless—which is to say, it never happens outside of God’s providential purposes.

Does that make sense?

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 103-4.

2. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

Sermon 02-07-16: “He Must Increase”

February 16, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

In today’s scripture, John the Baptist is not like most of us: Instead of being unhappy that his own work is declining in popularity, he’s happier than he’s ever been. Why? Because he understands that what matters most isn’t his own personal glory, but Christ’s glory. He understands that in spite of this apparent setback, God is in control and God is working his plan for him and the world. If this is true for John, it’s true for us as well. God is always working his plan for our lives, even in the face of mistakes, failures, and setbacks.

Sermon Text: John 3:22-36

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Show of hands… How many in here are rooting for the Broncos? How many are rooting for the Panthers? How many are rooting for the commercials? I am 45, so I’m cheering for the guy who’s very close to my age, Peyton Manning. I’m sentimental; I would love to see him get his long-sought-after second Super Bowl ring before retiring riding and off into the sunset. It would be a storybook ending to his career; it would seal his legacy as one of the best who ever played the game; it would silence all the skeptics who wonder why he wasn’t more effective in the playoffs.

manning

But what if he doesn’t get the storybook ending? What if the Broncos lose? How will Peyton live with the disappointment, the sorrow, the heartbreak, the failure?

How do we handle these things in our own lives? We all want to be happy, after all, yet doesn’t life often seem to put obstacles to happiness in our way? How do we deal with them, while at the same time rejoicing in the Lord always, the way Christians are supposed to? Read the rest of this entry »

Can we trust that God knows what he’s doing?

December 15, 2015

I was reading a Christian blog recently—whose theological orientation is evangelical and left-of-center. I don’t remember the details of this particular post, but the subject of gratitude for answered prayer came up. A skeptic in the comments section complained that we Christians are illogical when it comes to thanking God for answered prayer. “After all,” he said, “do you blame God when something doesn’t go your way? You can’t have it both ways: If God gets the credit when he causes things to go your way, then God must get the blame when things don’t go your way.”

I wouldn’t quite put it that way. Talk of “blame” is inappropriate because God knows best, and what God allows or causes is for the best, whether we see it that way or not.

Still, I agree with his logic. If anything happens in the universe, it happens according to God’s will. As I’ve shown many times on this blog, this is a logical consequence of our belief, first, in the authority of scripture, which strongly affirms God’s sovereignty over the world, but also in power of prayer: God allows our prayers, in part, to shape the world.

I used to resist this logic, throw up my hands, and say, along with many clergy colleagues, “It’s all a mystery!” until I read C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles—specifically, the appendix of his book.

In it, he argues that in order for God to answer our prayers, God will often already have had to set in motion the series of events that leads to our petitions being granted—before we even ask. (Unless, as an alternative, you believe that God must literally work a miracle—by suspending the laws of physics or overriding free will—every time God answers our prayers.)

Since God foreknows what we will pray for not only before we pray but also “before all worlds,” he has already factored our prayers in, along with human free will, before he creates the world and as he governs it. Lewis’s point is that we’re often praying for things that have, in one sense, already happened (because, even if the event hasn’t yet come to pass, the necessary sequence of events leading up to it is already set in motion).

With this in mind, you can see why this paragraph, especially the last sentence, changed my life:

The following question may be asked: If we can reasonably pray for an event which must in fact have happened or failed to happen several hours ago, why can we not pray for an event which we know not to have happened? e.g. pray for the safety of someone who, as we know, was killed yesterday. What makes the difference is precisely our knowledge. The known event states God’s will. It is psychologically impossible to pray for what we know to be unobtainable; and if it were possible the prayer would sin against the duty of submission to God’s known will.

Sin against the duty of submission to God’s known will.

Is C.S. Lewis, surely one of the greatest Christian minds of the twentieth or any other century, really saying that if something happens at all, it happens according to God’s will?

Yes, he is. And that last sentence alone caused me to rethink my understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence. Maybe I should have re-thought it before then (this was only four years ago), but there you are.

One objection, which some of my readers have already formulated, is the necessary relationship this implies between God’s will and evil. God is good. God doesn’t cause evil. God hates evil. In the cross of his Son, God has defeated evil, and on the other side of the Second Coming, he will destroy it entirely. Yet, if Lewis is right, then God wills even evil to happen. Surely that’s not right, is it?

No, it is right! God isn’t causing evil, but he is allowing it. And if he’s allowing it, he’s allowing it for a good reason.

To understand why, we have to understand the difference between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will. God’s antecedent will is what God wants in a world without sin and evil—before the Fall. God’s consequent will is what God wants in the world in which we live—in a fallen world.

For someone who objects to the idea that God wills evil events, I must ask: What choice does God have? Do we or don’t we like our creaturely freedom? If we think creaturely freedom is a good thing (and I certainly do) then we have to accept its consequences: freedom for us means the freedom to sin—the freedom to choose evil. God didn’t force humanity to rebel against him. Given that we have, however, what would you have God do?

I would have God work within this new context to bring good out of evil events in order to accomplish his purposes.

By all means, God wanted humanity not to sin, but not at any expense: not at the expense of freedom. He wanted humanity not to sin, but he wanted us to be free to choose sin more than he wanted to create a world in which that choice was impossible.

All that to say, I loudly affirm this recent blog post from the Desiring God website. The author writes that she thought for years that if she knew the reasons why she suffered, she would be satisfied. But she was wrong. What she needed instead was the assurance that God had a good reason, and that she should trust him.

She points out, rightly, that this is the main message of the Book of Job.

I liked this:

While I thought that freedom would be found in answers, true freedom was actually found in surrender. I didn’t need to figure it out. It didn’t need to make sense to me. I didn’t need to understand the details. I just needed to trust God. Trust him because he is infinitely wiser, more loving, and more purposeful than I am.

He has a reason for my pain. Many reasons. Even when I am at a complete loss to name even one. John Piper says, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” We may see a few things God is doing, one or two ways he is redeeming our pain, but we will never see the full picture on earth. Often all we can see is our loss.

I’ve said this before: We are finite. God is infinite. Why should we always (or usually) expect to know the reasons that some bad thing is happening?

When I was a young child, I would often ask my mom why I couldn’t get what I wanted. In exasperation, she would often say, “Because I said so.” I tried my best not to play that particular hand when my own children were young. But I’m sympathetic with mom. What she was really saying was, “You’re too immature to understand the reason. Regardless, you should trust that I know what’s best for you.”

Why should God’s reasons not be like that? The only difference is that our heavenly Father, unlike a human parent, is all-knowing and perfectly loving, and the difference between what God knows and what we humans know is infinitely greater than the difference between human parents and children.

Again, the answer is to trust that God knows what he’s doing!

“Good News of Great Joy,” Day 12: Blessings in Disguise

December 11, 2015

booklet_coverI recently created a 26-day Advent devotional booklet for my church called “Good News of Great Joy.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and Christmas day. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:39-45

In his book The Journey, Adam Hamilton writes:

Imagine Mary’s feelings as she heard Elizabeth’s words. It had been at least ten days since Gabriel had appeared to Mary with his confusing announcement. She had spent the last nine days traveling with her secret, uncertain, afraid, and wondering how any of this could be true. But then, before she could even tell Elizabeth what had happened, Elizabeth showed that she knew Mary’s secret, and Elizabeth was filled with joy on Mary’s behalf. Elizabeth went on to say, in essence, “Listen, child, you don’t have to be afraid. You’ve been blessed. Blessed! Don’t you see it? You’ve been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah.[1]

Elizabeth tells Mary three times that she’s blessed. But what does it mean to be blessed?

Not usually what we think it means—especially during this Christmas shopping season when non-stop television and radio commercials convince us that our blessings are things we can own and touch!

God’s blessings are different: For one thing, they often come with pain and suffering. It was certainly true in Mary’s case! Her blessings even came with a “sword,” as the prophet Simeon told her shortly after Jesus’ birth: “A sword will pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35), likely a reference to watching her son die on the cross.

I’m reminded of this profound song by singer-songwriter Laura Story, called “Blessings.” It includes these words:

We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things
‘Cause what if your blessings come through rain drops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

God wants to give us more than the “lesser things” that we so often think we want.

Do you trust that God knows what we need more than we do? Can you name an experience in which your trials were God’s “mercies in disguise”? Do you agree with this statement by C.S. Lewis? “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Why or why not?

1. Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 66.

What’s right with “everything happens for a reason”?

October 28, 2015

This blog post, “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” is making the social media rounds this week. The blogger, Tim Lawrence, is only the latest to attack the oft-repeated aphorism “everything happens for a reason.” Like a good politician, I’ve been both against it and for it—not the expression itself (which, like all platitudes, should be used sparingly if ever) but the meaning underneath it. Do you remember when I attacked Laura Story’s song “Blessings” before deciding, a year later, that it was profoundly good?

Isn’t that funny? What can I say? I’m a work in progress.

Regardless, with proper qualification, I now endorse the belief that “everything happens for a reason.” I believe it’s an inescapable consequence of God’s sovereignty, it accords perfectly well with the witness of scripture, and, personally, I find it immensely comforting, as I’ve blogged and preached several times before (including here). For my fellow Christians, I always recommend three books on the topic: C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Timothy Keller’s recent masterpiece, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

If you want to know why I changed my mind on the subject, start with those three books. They blew me away. They exposed how shallow my thinking on the subject of suffering and God’s providence and sovereignty had been.

Would they make any sense to someone who isn’t already a Christian? I don’t know. (Frankl was a Jewish survivor of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. His is a “secular,” non-sectarian book, but, in my opinion, it’s premised upon a God who must be there to give meaning to our suffering.)

With that in mind, I don’t know if Lawrence is a Christian, or even a religious person. He uses the language of blessing, as you see below, which is religious language. I read in his bio that he suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy. His blog aims to encourage people who are experiencing pain and suffering.

He writes:

I now live an extraordinary life. I’ve been deeply blessed by the opportunities I’ve had and the radically unconventional life I’ve built for myself. Yet even with that said, I’m hardly being facetious when I say that loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in many ways it’s hardened me.

His own loss, he says, has not in and of itself made him a better person.

That seems right, as far as it goes: No loss, no suffering, no pain, in and of themselves, can make us better people. As Frankl observed from his experience in the death camps, the suffering that his fellow inmates endured often did destroy their souls. But—and here’s the key point—he didn’t believe that even the most intense amount of suffering necessarily would. As he writes:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.[1]

Lawrence, by contrast, is unwilling to put the responsibility of that decision on the person who is suffering. Ever. He’s indignant at the suggestion:

Let me be crystal clear: if you’ve faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.

While I sympathize, one consequence of Lawrence’s thinking is that the suffering person can only ever be a victim, or, as Frankl puts it, a “plaything of circumstance.” Does Lawrence want that to be the case?

I don’t. Although I recognize that wanting something to be otherwise doesn’t make it so.

Still, if Lawrence is right, let’s concede that much of what the Bible tells us about suffering is also nonsense. I’m thinking, for example, of Joseph’s profound words to his brothers after their reunion in Genesis 50: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Or Paul’s discussion of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12: This thorn, whatever it is, is both a “messenger from Satan sent to torment” Paul and a gift that “was given” by God (notice the divine passive) to keep Paul from “becoming conceited.”

In both Joseph’s and Paul’s cases, therefore, we see God transforming a genuinely evil event or circumstance into something good for them and for the world.

Does God work like this all the time? Is their experience universal?

I think so, at least for us Christians. I’m thinking of the apostle James’s words about the trials we endure, in James 1:2-4, and how they are for our good: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness…” Or Paul’s words in Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Even Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5 to “give thanks in all circumstances” only makes sense if God is working providentially through everything. It’s also worth noting that when Paul wrote his “epistle of joy” to the Philippians, telling them to “rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice,” he was enduring a brutal imprisonment that he wasn’t sure he would even survive.

My point is, while it’s true that pain and suffering in and of themselves can’t make us better people or the world a better place, the good news is that we don’t experience anything in the world in and of itself! There’s no corner of the universe untouched by God’s grace. There’s no place in this world where the Holy Spirit isn’t actively at work. There’s no evil more powerful than God’s redemptive love.

If God can take the greatest evil imaginable—the cross of his Son Jesus—and transform it into the greatest good imaginable, can he or will he not do the same with lesser evils in our own lives?

Lawrence replaces one aphorism (“Everything happens for a reason”) with another: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

That’s true, although we can trust the Lord that whatever we’re “carrying,” we’re carrying because God wants us to, that it’s good for us, and that we’ll receive the grace we need to do so.

1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66-7.